The generally accepted interpretation of Justice William O. Douglas's majority opinion in United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944), casts the case as a ringing defense of religious freedom in the United States; a trial court may not charge a jury with inquiring into the factual truth of a defendant's religious beliefs incident to a prosecution for criminal fraud. This interpretation of Ballard is, at least arguably, unduly generous. By permitting juries to inquire into a religious leader's subjective good faith belief in the tenets of the faith, the Ballard majority provides an insufficient shield against prosecutions based on antipathy toward a particular religious sect's beliefs. The better view, ably expressed by Justice Robert Jackson in his dissent, would have disallowed inquiries into either the factual truth of a religious sect's beliefs or into the subjective beliefs of a religious leader because it is unrealistic to expect jurors to "separate an issue as to what is believed from considerations as to what is believable." If a primary purpose of the Free Exercise Clause is to safeguard absolute freedom of religious belief Justice Jackson's approach to the problem of religious fraud should be preferred to Justice Douglas 's more limited approach. Moreover, courts must recognize that the value of a religious commitment is not dependent on the sincerity of a sect's leaders; the value of a religion to a believer simply cannot be measured by either the good faith of the group's leaders or the plausibility of the group's beliefs to the larger general public. The Article uses the story line of the motion picture The Apostle to explore how even an insincere religious leader can facilitate genuine spiritual growth among his congregants. Justice Jackson's Ballard dissent places important-and necessary-emphasis on the freedom to believe in an "apostle" and on the significant value that such belief can provide to congregants. Members of a religion should have a right to believe in an "apostle" even if the apostle does not believe in himself and the validity of a religious experience does not necessarily correlate with the subjective good faith of a religious leader.
Ronald J. Krotoszynski Jr.,
The Apostle, Mr. Justice Jackson, and the Pathological Perspective of the Free Exercise Clause,
Wash. & Lee L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.ua.edu/fac_articles/675